13 May 2019

Grant Allen's Breezy Read

An Army Doctor's Romance
Grant Allen
London: Raphall Tuck & Sons, [1893]
113 pages

The publisher lowers expectations with a note presenting this novella as part of its Breezy Library, "an attempt to dissociate a shilling from a shocker." Rafael Tuck & Sons would like the reader to know that this is no Shilling Shocker, rather it is a "Shilling Soother." The unpleasant elements of other Grant Allen tales – adultery (A Splendid Sin), fraud (Miss Cayley's Adventures), arson (The Devil's Die), rail disasters (What's Bred in the Bone), suicide (Under Sealed Orders), assassination (For Maimie's Sake), poisoning (A Terrible Inheritance), and cannibalism (The Cruise of the Albatross) – will not feature. No man will be butted off a cliff by a savage moorland ram (Michael's Crag).

I don't believe I've read so slight a story as An Army Doctor's Romance since childhood. We open on "fresh English rosebud" Muriel Grosvenor, the object of affection of two men serving in the Royal West Badenochs. Oliver Cameron, the first we meet, is a handsome doctor of modest means. His rival, Captain Wilfred Burgess, is just as handsome, and has the advantage of being enormously wealthy. Of the two, Muriel's mother prefers the latter, but the heart wants what the heart wants. During an English garden party on an idyllic English summer's day, the army doctor professes his love and proposes marriage. Muriel in turn declares her love, but stops short of accepting the proposal for the reason that she promised her mother she would not. Her promise to Oliver Cameron is that she will accept no other proposals.

Thwarted by scheming widow Mrs Talbot, who threw Muriel and the doctor together, Capt Burgess has no opportunity to make his own play for Muriel's hand, and so has to resort to a proposal sent by Royal Mail. Mrs Grosvenor pressures her daughter into accepting by post. After the response has been sent, Muriel writes a quick follow-up, breaking off the engagement and "blaming herself not a little for her moral cowardice." But she misses the postman! To make matters worse, Dr Cameron, Capt Burgess, and the rest of the Royal West Badenochs have shipped out to deal with the Matabeles in Matabeleland!

Curiously, surprisingly, in something touted as a "Shilling Soother," there is unpleasantness in the form of a Matabele attack on the Badenochs. Cameron is captured and Burgess is injured horribly. Each thinks the other has been killed. The doctor is released by the enemy and eventually makes his way back to England. Meanwhile, the captain is nursed back to health by Miriam, the beautiful daughter of a famous missionary. Burgess falls in love... but what to do about his engagement to Muriel? The situation is resolved with ease, and everyone goes off happily.

Breezy indeed, An Army Doctor's Romance passed before my eyes without once causing me to pause and give thought. Following Eden Phillpotts'  Summer Clouds and Other Stories (1893), it was the third volume in the Breezy Library. Only three more followed.

I'm not surprised.

Trivia I: By far the least imaginative of the fourteen Allen novels and novellas I've read to date, I was surprised to discover that An Army Doctor's Romance was well-received by contemporary reviewers.

The Publishers' Circular (Christmas 1893)
The most puzzling was a review in The Speaker (25 November 1893), which describes the plot as "distinctly ingenious."

Trivia II: In reading this novel – written for the money, surely – I came to believe that Allen was having some fun with the Breezy Library name because the words "breeze" and "breezy" appear four times in the text. However, research revealed that the words appear no less than nineteen times in the The Devil's Die (1890), my favourite Allen novel.

Object and Access: An attractive, somewhat unusual volume, the image and writing on the flexible chromolithographic cover are raised. The image is of Dr Oliver Cameron. His actions are a mystery to me. The interior features seven more images. All are by military artist Harry Payne.

Six of our university libraries hold copies, but not Library and Archives Canada. I've found five copies listed for sale online US$70 to US$250. I won my copy for US$16.99 in an online auction. As is often the case with things Allen, I was the only bidder.

The novella can be read online through this link thanks to the University of Alberta and the Internet Archive.

I don't recommend it.

06 May 2019

A Brief Review of a Book Bought in Error

Exit Barney McGee
Claire Mackay
Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic-TAB, 1979
146 pages

We've all been there. It's the dying minutes of a book sale, volunteers are exhausted, and you're are encouraged to fill up a box for ten dollars... two dollars... whatever you'd care to donate. You scan the tables, scooping up anything remotely interesting, casting not so much as a glance. This is how I came to buy Exit Barney McGee, a title I read as Exit D'Arcy McGee. The fleeting glimpse of the cover image had me thinking it was a kid's time travel novel.


Exit Barney McGee is not a time travel novel, though kids today will find sentences like this old-fashioned, if not puzzling: "He dialled slowly, letting his finger travel backward with each number, muffling the insect buzz of the release."

Truth be told, I found the novel old-fashioned; not because my family had push-button phones, but because the story's beginning was all to familiar.

Thirteen-year-old Barney McGee was raised the only child of a single mother – his father having abandoned the family when he was a toddler – but he'd been happy enough. For ten years, it was just mother and child. When Barney grew older, he shouldered some of her burden with money earned through a paper route. Though a boy, he was very much the man of the house... until his mom met and married Mr Conrad, Barney's grade six teacher. Now, a year later, they've been joined by baby girl named Sarah.

Barney longs for the days when it was just him and his mom. The two used to go to the movies on Friday nights; now Mr Conrad takes her out for an evening of bridge with the school vice-principal and his wife.

Barney has had enough. He has a vague memory of a letter his father sent his mother, and rifles thorough his mother's lingerie drawer for a cache of letters. There he finds a scrawl sent from Toronto  by his dad. Ten years have passed, but never mind. A mouse named Saki joins the chip on Barney's shoulder as he sets out for the Hogtown address.

I was curious as to how things would develop. The beginning of Barney's story was so unoriginal that I anticipated some sort of twist. Sadly, Exit Barney McGee follows the road most travelled. There is – no surprise – a smidgen of comedy and adventure en route. A kindly lady offers a ride, but skids to a stop when Saki scurries across her pretty pink skirt. Deeper danger rears its head when Barney accepts a ride from Harry, a seventeen-year-old who is fleeing a botched mugging in a stolen car. Harry sees the runaway as his next victim, but the car runs off the road and Barney and Saki are thrown free.

Because Barney's is such a familiar story, I spoil nothing in revealing that the reunion between father and son falls far short of the boy's dreams.

From beginning to end, Exit Barney McGee was conventional; the only thing that stuck out was the entrance of kindly Nell Weatherston. A social worker, Nell has the task of dealing with Harry, who is revealed to be an orphan who has been abused by his uncles. Another of Nell's cases concerns an eleven-year-old who steals gifts for friends. At home, she is beaten by her patents. Nell, the police, and the hospital staff recognize that not all children are loved.  

Sadly, in today's Canada, this too seems old-fashioned.

Object and access: A slim, cheaply-produced paperback. My copy is a first printing. As far as I can tell, the novel was reprinted in 1987 and 1992. It benefits from five interior illustrations by David Simpson. Curiously, the cover references Toronto's Carleton Street, which is not mentioned in the novel. Used copies can be found online for as little as US$5.00. Mine is signed!

22 April 2019

Millar's Experiment in Springtime in Springtime

Experiment in Springtime
Collected Millar: Dawn of Domestic Suspense
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017

Margaret Millar's seventh novel, Experiment in Springtime is the first to not feature a dead body. The original dust jacket describes it as a love story, but the design suggests otherwise.

Experiment in Springtime is a dark tale of an unhealthy marriage. Charles Pearson, the husband, is himself unhealthy. In April, he arrived home from work complaining about a headache. Martha Pearson, the wife, gave him two aspirins, which sent him into anaphylactic shock.

Well, that was Dr MacNeil's diagnosis, anyway.

For several days, it looked as if Charles might die. Dr MacNeil did what he could, and Martha spent many hours playing nurse by her husband's bedside. Not to worry, though he's still bedridden, the novel begins with Charles well on the road to recovery. Convalescence has given Charles time to reflect on his five-year-old marriage to Martha. She doesn't love him – of that he is sure – but he hopes that she one day will. Did she ever love him? Martha has changed. Gone is the young woman of twenty-one who accepted Charles' proposal, replaced with an prematurely middle-aged matron for whom duty and appearance are paramount. Martha dresses the part, always in black, with hats as sensible and durable as her "low-heeled black suede oxfords." The car Charles presented as a birthday present is too sleek, too ostentatious; in her opinion, it doesn't match "the personality she had selected for herself."

Others living in the Pearson house – which was built for Martha – are more keen on Charles. The servants like him, in part because he's easygoing and not terribly demanding. Lily, the blushing young maid, has a bit of a crush on her employer. Laura, Martha's sixteen-year-old kid sister, likes that Charles doesn't treat her like a child. Mrs Shaw, Martha's widowed mother, is just shy of being indifferent; she's happiest when alone in her room counting tangerine pits. Everyone, Martha included, agrees that Charles is a highly intelligent man; after all, he's on the board of directors of the Matson Trust Company.

Though Charles and Martha's marriage is at the centre of this novel, scenes featuring the couple are few. Early in the novel, quite unexpectedly, Charles accuses his wife of having tried to murder him. Concerned with keeping up appearances – the staff are around – she places a hand over his mouth. Charles bites her, drawing blood. The following day, with chauffeur Forbes, Charles departs for rest at some remote, unknown location.

Enter – or re-enter – Steve Ferris, Martha's former fiancee, now back from the war. She rents him the vacated chauffeur's flat above the garage. Given Martha's obsession with what others think, it might seem an odd thing to do – but she has her motivations, not the least of which is spite.

Experiment in Springtime does not have a dead body, though the appearance of one wouldn't have been at all jarring. There is danger in this novel in the form of a denial of mental illness. It's all to do with ignorance and the desire to maintain – I'll say it again – appearances.

It's frightening to think how little things have changed in the seven decades since it was written.

Dedication: "To my husband, Kenneth Millar."

Trivia: Early in the novel, Steve is invited to dinner at the home of his aunt and his spinster cousin, leading to this exchange:
"Well Bea," he said. "How's business?"
     "Oh, fine." She sat opposite him, smoothing her dress carefully over her knees. "Same as usual."
     "I thought the old bas— tyrant would have made you vice president by this time."
     "It's all right. You can say bastard as long as mother's not around."
     They both laughed, but he knew he had offended her by changing the word to "tyrant." It was like moving her back a generation.
     She said crisply, "Remember the cartoon in Esquire years ago? 'I may be an old maid, but I'm not a fussy old maid.' Well, that's me."
The cartoon to which Bea refers appeared in the May 1934 Esquire. It isn't quite as she remembers.

Object and Access: Experiment in Springtime was first published in 1947 by Random House. There was no second printing, and no other editions followed. Its inclusion in the second volume of the Collected Millar marked the novel's first appearance in print in seven decades.

Curiously, a German translation was published in 1995 under the title Umgarnt. Its cover uses a detail of Felix Vallotton's At the Café (1909). One wonders why.

The Random House first is surprisingly uncommon. As of this writing, four copies are offered for sale online. At US$35, the cheapest is a Good copy that once belonged to collector and bibliographer Adrian Goldstone. Tempting, but the ones to buy are a signed Near Fine copy in Very Good jacket (US$45) and a Very Good copy in Very Good jacket inscribed by Millar to her sister Dorothy (US$375).

Related post:

21 April 2019

'The Easter Winds' by Lilian Leveridge

Easter verse written in the midst of the Great War by Anglican Lilian Leveridge from her debut collection Over the Hills of Home and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918).

                         The little winds of dawning,
                              Long centuries ago,
                         Went straying in a garden
                              With bursting buds aglow.
                         A wondrous tale they whispered
                              Of One Who loved, Who died
                         For men whose hatred pierced Him
                              In hands and feet and side. 
                         Bright angels told His story:
                              The winds caught up the song;
                         On viewless wings forever
                              They bear the strain along.
                         The flowers await His coming;
                              For love of Him they bloom—
                         The fadeless Rose of Sharon.
                              That blossomed from the tomb. 
                         O little winds of Easter
                              That blow amid the hills,
                         With lily perfume laden
                              And breath of daffodils.
                         Go, blow across the ocean.
                              And carry to "our boys,"
                         Our truest and our dearest,
                              A gift of Easter joys— 
                         The sweetness of the blossoms,
                              The music of the bells,
                         That, hour by hour unwearied,
                              The glad evangel tells—
                         Of life that blooms unfading,
                              Of love that cannot die,
                         Of rest and peace abiding
                              Beyond our shrouding sky. 
                         O viewless Easter angels
                              That wander round the world,
                         Where, reeking red with carnage,
                              The bolts of hate are hurled,
                         Where, rank on rank, the crosses
                              Stand silent on the hill,
                         Go, plant the amaryllis.
                              The rose, the daflfodil. 
                         Then all the winds of Easter
                              Shall bear upon their wings
                         To wounded hearts the essence
                              Of all life's sweetest things.
                         "The Lord is risen!" shall echo
                              From shore to farthest shore,
                         And Love shall reign eternal,
                              And pain shall be no more.

Related posts:

17 April 2019

Canadian Notes & Queries in Springtime

Behold, Canadian Notes & Queries #104 has arrived! Here it is on the hood of our aging Jeep Liberty.

I look forward to each and every issue, but am particularly keen on this one because it features "No Country for Old Books," my essay on Canada Reads. I think it's important, not so much for my opinions, but for exposing what our "literary Survivor" has hidden from CBC listeners. The show's letter to publishers, sent this past fall, is revelatory – and is printed in full. CNQ made the essay available online last month:
No Country for Old Books
But wouldn't you rather subscribe?

Of course you would. You can do so through this link.

I've also been looking forward to Ian Coutts' article on James Moffatt, the boozy middle-aged Canadian expat behind the bestselling skinhead novels of 'seventies Great Britain.

And then there's Michel Basilières' piece on the great Émile Nelligan in translation.

As he often does, Seth surprises; this time with a spread on The Children's Book about Pulp and Paper and other "little marvels of design and illustration" by Jacques Gagnier and Leonard L. Knott.

Also featured is a new short story by Cynthia Flood!

Other contributors include:
Myra Bloom
Andreae Callanan
Paige Cooper
Jason Dickson
André Forget
Stephen Fowler
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
Cynthia Holz
Ben Ledoucer
Dancy Mason
David Mason
Marko Sijan
Fiona Smyth
Pablo Strauss
Souvankham Thammavougea
Joshua Whitehead
Bruce Whiteman
My Dusty Bookcase column for this issue looks at The Arch-Satirist by Frances de Wolfe Fenwick. Regular readers of this blog may remember mention of this book in a previous post and on Facebook (yeah, I'm on Facebook). "How is it that a 1910 Montreal novel that begins with the ramblings of a drunken, drug-addicted teenage poet disappoints?" I asked my Facebook "friends."

Those who think I've been unfair to Miss Fenwick may wish to consider this from the July 1910 issue of Canadian Magazine:

Related posts:

08 April 2019

The Mystery Anthology Mystery Solved?

Canadian Mystery Stories
Alberto Manguel, editor
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1991
288 pages

My review of this, the eleventh of Alberto Manguel's twenty-two anthologies, was posted yesterday at Canadian Notes & Queries online:

What did I think?

Well, for one, it has the most inept introduction I've ever encountered. These jackets to books by writers who are not so much as recognized will provide further clues.

Phantom Wires
Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1923
The Shadow
H. Bedford-Jones
New York: Fiction League, 1930
The Blue Door
Vincent Starrett
New York: Doubleday, 1930
The Maestro Murders
Frances Shelley Wees
New York: Mystery League, 1931
The Hidden Door
Frank L. Packard
New York: Doubleday, 1933
Trouble Follows Me
Kenneth Millar
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1946
Exit in Green
Martin Brett [pseud Douglas Sanderson]
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1953

Related post:

02 April 2019

The Return of Jimmie Dale, Alias Gray Seal

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal
Michael Howard
n.p.: The Author, 2017
375 pages

My final year as a trick-or-treater was spent walking though cold, dark streets of suburban Montreal as the Shadow. I wore my grandfather's raincoat, his fedora, and a red winter scarf that belonged to my mother. I carried a squirt gun that bore some resemblance to a Colt .45. The fake nose I'd torn off a pair of plastic Groucho Marx glasses was left behind; I couldn't figure out a way to make it stick to my face.

Even then, at age eleven, I knew it was unlikely that the adults handing out candy would recognize my costume. I tried make things easier by affixing the Shadow logo, traced from the cover of DC Comics' The Shadow #3, to the paper Steinberg's grocery bag used to collect my loot.

I was a 'seventies kid steeped in the culture of the Great Depression. My favourite television show was The Waltons. Decades-old episodes of The Shadow played each summer on As It Happens. The pharmacy in nearby Pointe Claire Village sold oversized reproductions of Detective Comics #27 and Batman #1.

What I didn't realize then, or in the the thirty or so years that followed, was that my favourite crime fighters – the Shadow and Batman – had been influenced by the Gray Seal, a character created by Frank L. Packard, a fellow Montrealer, who had lived not fifteen kilometres from my Beaconsfield home.

The Gray Seal was born in the pulps. First appearing in the April 1914 edition of People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine, his  earliest stories were collected in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1917). Four more Gray Seal books followed, the last of which, Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour (1935), was published seven years before his creator's death.

Packard's bibliography offers some explanation as to why the Gray Seal is a forgotten hero. The author produced hundreds of stories for magazines, yet those featuring the Gray Seal are very much in the minority; just five of Packard's thirty-seven books feature the character. Unlike the Shadow and Batman, the creator retained ownership. No one else, save early screen scenarist Mildred Considine, who in 1917 helped bring the Gray Seal to the screen, wrote anything to do with the character that reached the public.

Until now.

As its cover states, Michael Howard's Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal is "The first Gray Seal novel in more than eighty years!" I take care to include the exclamation mark in that quote because its publication is cause for celebration. Howard has done Packard proud.

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal precedes Packard's adventures in that it imagines the character before his first appearance in People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine. While it is not an origin story, Howard provides more background than is found in Packard's Gray Seal books. Jimmie's father is still alive, the safe company that brought fortune is still in Dale family hands, and yet, Jimmie is already fighting crime as the Gray Seal. The first to experience his form of justice is Elias Hobart, a crook who preys on good people eager to donate money to the survivors of disaster. He's been doing it since the 1889 Johnstown Flood.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor
1849 - 1913
The reference to Johnstown marks one difference between the Howard and Packard Gray Seal adventures. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal begins and ends with chapters set in mid-September 1920, but the twenty-nine in-between take place during a summer eight years earlier. Howard grounds both time and place with characters making occasional, casual references to events current and past. Figures of the day, my favourite being ill-fated Mayor William Jay Gaynor, make brief appearances.

Elias Hobart is dealt with in short order; the greater challenge in this novel comes from a group of men known as the Spider Gang. They use metal claws to scale the cavernous streets of Manhattan, abducting the New York's most beautiful women.

But for what purpose?

The women who fall victim to the Spider Gang come from all social classes, with the villains scrambling up the exterior walls of both tenements and mansions. No ransom is ever sought. I risk spoiling things a bit in revealing that their motivation has something to do with the occult. The supernatural is another element introduced by Howard. Though common in pulp writing of the Parkard's day, it doesn't feature in his Jimmie Dale adventures.

Or am I wrong?

I can't say for certain because I've read only three of Packard's five Gray Seal books. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal has me wanting to read the others. I can think of no greater compliment.

Would that I could go out as the Gray Seal this Halloween.

Trivia: The Grey Seal of my boyhood:

Object and Access: An attractive print on demand trade-size paperback. The cover image is by Doug Kleuba. WorldCat suggests that the novel isn't held by a single Canadian library. It can be purchased through this link to Amazon. Heads up, Library and Archives Canada.

Related posts: